“Parents ought to above all Things give their Children new Stays frequently, and not grumble at the Expence,” (Andry de-Bois Regard 87-88). In eighteenth century England, stays also known as corsets were bought and sold for children as young as two years old. At an age before some could even walk, young girls were put in stays to begin creating their womanly figure. As can be seen in the figure below, young girls in this time were valued mostly for their marital value. At the early age of two, they are put in stays to prepare them for their ultimate goal of marriage, which would then lead to children. As was seen in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, women were thought of only in their capacity as mothers. Subsequently, they were dressed in ridiculous fashions such as stays and petticoats to satisfy the shape which men thought women should be. These values and ideals were further pushed as anxieties about gender grew, and women’s role in the private sphere began to be questioned.
During the eighteenth century, the revolutions experienced in the Western hemispheres caused anxieties about the roles people played in society. Women were amongst those challenging their roles by taking part in the politics of their countries. As governments began to change, women attempted to help frame and form the fledgling government of their respective country. This was seen in Belinda, with Lady Delacour’s, and Harriet Freke’s endorsement of politicians. These new roles which women were attempting to create for themselves in the public sphere were constrained and contrasted by the clothes and fashion which was imposed on them. Although women wanted to play active roles in the public sphere, the fashions they were given, particularly petticoats and stays, forced they and their bodies to conform to the way in which men preferred to see them. By making stays for women and young girls, men attempted to prepare the women’s body so it may look more shapely, so she may eventually find a suitable husband. All so the women may eventually fulfill her role in society by getting married, and having children. The stays are constructed with cloth and whalebones to create the desired shape. While not all men of this time endorsed stays, some argued that stays encouraged proper growth in children. As was articulated at the time, “When children are recovering from a disease… use of stitched stays, or at least of quilted bodice, is more necessary than upon any other occasion,” (Andry de-Bois Regard 88). It created the appropriate shape which society sought in women, while being justified for its use on children as being corrective or helpful for growth. Similarly, petticoats, another cumbersome fashion, were created to emulate the curves of a woman. Although some were quite large, and exaggerated, they were the fashions which women felt they had to wear, in order to attain a husband. The stay for adult women below also shows that corsets were not simply to encourage proper growth. They were used to accentuate and exaggerate female curves. To further objectify women and exemplify their purpose.
Ironically, many men criticized women who wore petticoats and stays. Even though petticoats and stays were sold and created by men, other men criticized women for wearing what they deemed ridiculous garb. As explained by the scholar Kimberly Chrisman, “…it [the petticoat] was taken up as an all-encompassing symbol of female (and, by extension, fashion’s) caprice” (Chrisman 6). The drawing below also depicts this sentiment which men felt towards women. The woman wearing the petticoat and stay created by a man is seen as ridiculous and frivolous. Mothers ran a fine line between being attractive and fashionable, while also fulfilling their roles as mothers and wives. Women like Lady Delacour preferred to be fashionable, than motherly, “The same reasons which convinced me I ought not to nurse my own child, determined me… not to undertake its education” (Edgeworth 42). Women were expected to wear petticoats, and stays, but were also criticized for it. The antagonism aimed towards women and their fashions, mirrored the anxiety felt towards their involvement in the public sphere. If women could control what they wore, and ventured in the public sphere, men feared they would abandon the children, and manipulate the world into chaos. As men in revolutions struggled to find their new identity, so did women.
Andry de Bois-Regard, Nicolas. Orthopædia: or, the art of correcting and preventing deformities in children: By such Means, as may easily be put in Practice by Parents themselves, and all such as are employed in Educating Children. To which is added, a defence of the Orthopædia, by way of supplement, by the author. Translated from the French of M. Andry, Professor of Medicine in the Royal College, and Senior Dean of the Faculty of Physick at Paris. In two volumes. Illustrated with cuts. … Vol. Volume 1. London, M.DCC.XLIII. . Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. UC Los Angeles. 10 Mar. 2014
Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Chrisman, Kimberly. “Unhoop the Fair Sex: The Campaign against the Hoop Petticoat in Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 30.1 (1996): 5-23.
Child’s Stay, Museum of Costume, Item Number: BATMC 2003.734. Accessed 03-09-2014 <http://www.museumofcostume.co.uk/collections/collection_search/SearchDetails.aspx>
Adult Stay, Museum of Costume, Item Number: BATMC I.27.866. Accessed 03-09-2014 <http://www.museumofcostume.co.uk/collections/collection_search/SearchDetails.aspx>
“In Fashion. Out of Fashion.” The British Museum, Item Number: 1851,0901.296-297. Date Accessed 03-09-2014. <http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1460841&partId=1&searchText=petticoats&page=1>